Lennart Anderson at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries
High Gifts and Creative Intuition

Rarely does an artist justify the view that the act of painting is serious and grave; that it is laden with consequence and that it involves so much more than the artist’s own person. Lennart Anderson is one such painter.

His current exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly is a museum-quality gem. Paintings on view span over four decades of a working life spent in obedience to the dictum that high art is difficult to achieve. Henry James was blunt about it. "The gift of art is given to a few." It has been given to Lennart Anderson in full measure. And he continues to repay the gift.

A simple female nude, painted over two years beginning in 1962, is all the evidence needed to understand why the nude, in certain hands, is an exalted form. Anderson’s figure stands on one foot, the other raised and resting on the edge of a bed behind her. The woman’s features are uniquely identifiable. We would recognize her passing in the hall. But the pose! It recalls at once a Venus rising and Maillol’s canonical Ile de France.

In one version of Maillol’s life-sized bronze—heel of the back foot raised—the arms are truncated at their sockets. Anderson achieves a similar effect by clothing his nude in a body-length blue-grey robe that, hanging from the shoulders, drapes behind her to accentuate the cylinder of her torso. The ensemble is played against a muted red wall that nods toward the frescoes of Pompeii and the intimacies of their female-dominated interiors.

Idyll III
"Idyll III" (in progress), 1977-2002

Anderson’s street scenes from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, with their soundless anxieties and high keyed color schemes, appear even more contemporary now than when they were made. In a post 9/11 world, the crisis on view—unspecified, unresolved—strikes us as prescient. The polar opposite of unmodern. Daily life is ever precarious, vulnerable. For a brief time, that ancient truism was unwisely dismissed, an unpleasantness tucked under the cushions of affluence and ostensible calm. Not any more.

In a new century, we look at these choreographies of hazard with a certain astonishment. Of course! How could anyone have missed it? Who could fail to recognize the looming veracity of that unease, the subtle sense of endangerment, uncertainty? Even in a scene as ordered and outwardly benign as St. Mark’s Place, 1970-76, something dodgy in the glances of the figures--toward and away from one another—contradicts the clarity and logic of the composition. Lessons in formal pictorial design, learned from Poussin, are used to set off, even mock, modernity’s sense of itself.

And the surfaces of these paintings! Day trippers will respond to the subject. Lovers of painting, amateurs in the root sense, will see through to the stuff it is made of. As they should. This unearthly skin, butter smooth and dense, links Anderson to the great moderns, Manet and Degas. Such signature caress, a perfect marriage between the act of drawing and the substance of paint, is rare among the modernists. (DeKooning was capable of it but abandoned it after the 1940’s. Gorky brought it to the double portraits of himself and his mother, in the 1920’s and 30’s.) The very fabric of the paint itself is elegiac, a poignant reminder of the qualities of feeling lost to alla prima painting and the taste for gesticulation.

Alla prima provides a stage for the mystique of brush strokes and evident gesture, devices for calling attention to artist within the work. It is a kind of stagecraft. Anderson, by contrast, is a reticent man. His techniques are true to the meditative bent that drew him to painting in the first place.

Two portraits of Anderson’s wife, painted nearly twenty years apart, are included here. The magisterial, full length Portrait of Barbara S. (1976), borrowed from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, orchestrates unexpected relations and nimble observations. Barbara is seated three-quarters sideways, her face turned straight to the viewer. Hands folded, spine straight, head erect—braced by the verticle corner of a wall—she is an image of aristocratic composure. Florentine in its coloring, classical in economy of statement, the painting is, nonetheless, a distillation of the modern temper.

It takes what it wants from the simple, severe pictorial structure of the classical mode but spurns the grand style. Costume and surroundings are devoid of class insignia. The figure sits on a painted kitchen chair. She is barefoot in a simple skirt and sweat shirt and wears no jewelry. The room is barren of reference to anything but the life of the mind: a book on a dresser top, a small plaster reproduction of a classical figure, Anderson’s own paint sketches on the wall. In witty substitution for the gilded mirror, Regency mantel, or ornate tapestry of court portraiture, a simple radiator locks the figure to the background. Without good heating, the arts are hard to maintain.

The emotional impact of the painting owes everything to Anderson’s modesty in front of his subject. The dignity and authority of the portrait are the woman’s own. So too is the pensive intensity of the smaller, later and more intimate portrait of Barbara. The painting brings us close-up to a dark head against a dark background, shoulders swaddled in broody purple. In psychological depth, it is a descendant of Degas’ studies for his portrait of Laura Bellelli. It stands in witness to the weight of a lived life on a sensitive and beautiful woman.

Anderson remains a still life painter of extraordinary power. It is safe to say that his generation—he is 74—has produced none finer. In his hands, the things of the table—an egg-carton, a salt shaker, a plastic basket of strawberries, a jumble of cloths and crockery—assume a grandeur we had missed before seeing them through his eyes. He makes of them what Velasquez did—not decorative items but sacramental ones, ordinary things elevated by their service to life.

Still lifes on show here range from the 70’s to the present. Over the years, limpid arrangements, attentive to geometry and the demands of design, have gradually yielded to something more closely related to Horace’s phrase ut pictura poesis. The wording suggests the close coupling of painting and poetry. Only that the poetry is lyric, rather than heroic or dramatic. Here, salami and an olive on a plastic plate are incandescent with loveliness. There, so much depends on a cardboard carton and the desolation of a fallen mannequin. [Anyone who loves these mannequin paintings, should search out Pietro Annigoni’s treatment of the motif.]

I do not propose that Anderson is a religious man. Only that he brings a revelatory imagination to bear on the world he treats in his painting. Much as we admire the rigor and wit of his compositions, in the end, we are moved by the numinous quality of the quotidian things within them.

Perhaps that is why the Arcadian themes, which have preoccupied him for many years, are less satisfying. Ravishing to look at, inventive and technically magnificent , they seem somehow out of tune with the character of his own talent. There is a counter-intuitive stress, originating with the subject matter, that contradicts Anderson’s splendid capacity for abstraction.

He has a genius for abstracting from the specific. (Go back to Nude, 1962-62, and notice the handling of frontal nudity. Its discretion owes itself precisely to his gracious ability to edit without idealizing.) These idylls, even if we could assent to them intellectually, require the artist to reverse gear by specifying the abstract. It is an about-face that gainsays the ground of his achievement.

An argument can be made that Anderson is exploring an encore to what Degas attempted in Young Spartans, begun in 1860 and reworked until 1880. But Degas offered the work as history painting, not as flight from history. Moreover, he suppressed the quasi-literary conceits of his theme, concentrating on the faces and bodies of ordinary Parisian street kids in combative attitudes.

Anderson’s idylls intend a pastoral, ultimately ahistorical significance. Retreat from history is a kind of despair. It is impelled by refusal to find meaning in it. Utopia, after all, is nowhere.

But grace, Georges Bernanos reminded us, is everywhere. Great art reveals it: in a grain of sand, the turn of a head or the bent bristles of an old scrub brush. From an artist who stands alone in creating Eden on a table top, the idylls are disconcerting.

It is useful to keep in mind that the essence of Anderson’s classicism resides in his empathy, not in technical eloquence—though that he has in abundance—nor in the game of classical allusion. Empathy is of greater rarity than virtuosity and more humane. His classicism is achieved by profound sympathy with the physical world’s capacity for beauty, occasional nobility. No canon of forms and motifs, no codex of rules, can substitute for that gracious and tender assent to earthly potential that touches Anderson’s work. Therein lies the genius that can not be imitated.


Maureen Mullarkey © 2002

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